Joe Gunn


February 22, 2016

Are you afraid of the terrorists? If not afraid, according to the most recent polls, most of your neighbours believe that Canada should at least be doing more to fight ISIL in Iraq and Syria.

In response, this month the Liberal government announced increased measures to combat Islamic State fighters: more humanitarian assistance has been promised, a larger number of Special Forces will be sent to the region on an enlarged training mission, while two reconnaissance aircraft and an aerial refueling plane will remain in theatre.

(Six of Canada's CF-18 fighter jets have been bombing ISIL targets in Iraq since October 2014 and into Syria since March 2015. They will be brought home in keeping with a Liberal election promise.)

But as Canada ramps up its military involvement, Canada's foremost ecumenical peace coalition is celebrating its 40th anniversary - and continuing to raise hard evidence which could help us reappraise the efficacy of our overseas military engagements.

In 1976, a Mennonite, Ernie Regehr, teamed up with Quaker Murray Thompson to form Project Ploughshares. Taking their inspiration from the biblical passage in Isaiah ("They shall beat their swords into ploughshares"), Ploughshares became a project of the Canadian Council of Churches and has remained an important ecumenical witness with a long history of Catholic participation.

Late last year, Regehr published his latest book, Disarming Conflict: Why Peace Cannot Be Won on the Battlefield.

Here, Regehr moves beyond moral arguments for peace. He convincingly points out that "the record of warfare over the past quarter century makes it abundantly clear that vital political objectives are these days rarely achieved through sheer military force."

Using a database of wars across the planet, he concludes that the overwhelming majority of wars (85 per cent in the last quarter century after the end of the Cold War) cannot be settled on the battlefield.

All current wars are civil wars, and of the 15 per cent won or lost on the battlefield, rebel forces "win" as many wars as do governments. (Of course, "winning" is often the wrong concept when loss of human lives, resources and livelihoods on all sides are calculated.)

The historical record can give policymakers and the public cause to stop and think. If we become more acutely aware of the limits to the use of force, it will be easier to recognize when armed security forces can or cannot be constructively deployed, Regehr concludes.


Additionally, we might also question the over $1.7 trillion that the world currently spends on military pursuits of stability and security. Regehr asks us to consider that while the UN is often criticized, the equivalent of the entire annual UN operating budget, plus peacekeeping, amounts to about $13 billion. Military forces worldwide spend more than that in just three days.

Here lies a specific challenge to Canada's new federal government. While NATO suggests an aspirational target of military spending at two per cent of a member country's GDP, Ottawa already spends almost five times more on defence than on international assistance.

If armed force is already a highly over-rated investment for conflict management, and we need to place more attention on conflict prevention and resolution while strengthening institutions of democratic development, war prevention rather than war winning needs to be advanced.

Project Ploughshares made the news most recently for raising the contradictions evident in Canada's $15-billion sale of light armed vehicles to the praetorian guards of Saudi Arabia's human rights-defying ruling family.


As Cesar Jaramillo, executive director of Project Ploughshares, said, "There are lines that Canada should not cross in the pursuit of profit - and sustaining one of the worst human rights violators in the world should clearly be one of them."

It is unfortunate that the Catholic community's support for Project Ploughshares has waned. The Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace-Caritas has become an absentee member, thus disappointing our ecumenical colleagues.

No representative has been sent to Ploughshares meetings for at least five years, in spite of repeated formal overtures to the Montreal headquarters and representations to national council members. A fine way to get peace back into meaningful Catholic action would be for CCODP to re-join and strengthen Project Ploughshares this year of its 40th anniversary.

(Joe Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice,, an ecumenical social advocacy organization.)